My Three Favorite Computer Games of 2004

It was a great year for sitting and playing at INTERACTIVE GAMING MONTHLY ONLINE!

I know that 2004 came and went a while ago and INTERACTIVE GAMING MONTHLY ONLINE magazine is a little late to the game, so to speak, but I definitely didn't want to get too far into 2005 without naming some of my favorites from last year. It was a good year for gaming, but a lot of the big titles like GTA:SA got so much attention that I think these other games were forgotten. So here are three of my favorites that you might have missed.

Best Overall

America's Army Special Ops: Abu Ghraib
The United States Army (PC)

Okay, the original America's Army required you to go through endless training missions, and while the online game play was good I never really got into it. But this game is totally different. In this one you're plucked from a rural community in America, separated from your family, and flown to a foreign country. When you land you're given an assignment to guard a prison, and told to make it up as you go along. That's it—the rest is up to you. This is a really open-ended game and the story totally depends on the decisions you make.

You and your teammates are given a group of "detainees" that you must discipline. The thing that makes this game different is that the detainees can't fight back, and they're in chains or locked in cells. At first it was a little confusing, and I killed a lot of detainees expecting them to fight back, but I got used to it and found it to be a refreshingly different approach from most RPGs.

The choice of weapons is really interesting, too. You start out with a crate, a cattle prod, and a Bible, and by using them in different ways you get more weapons to use. For instance, after you beat a detainee with a Bible, you get pork and bananas, which you can either (spoiler alert) feed to the detainees or insert into their rectums, or both. But it's not as easy as it sounds! The detainees will eat the bananas, but they'll get really angry if they have to eat pork.

The game is split between sim levels and puzzle levels. In the sim levels you have to discipline the detainees and see if you can get any information out of them. After you complete a sim level you go to a puzzle level, where you have a different goal every time. In one puzzle, you have two minutes to construct a pyramid out of detainees without letting any of them fall down. In another, you have to throw a brown sludge at naked detainees until they denounce Allah, who in the game is their god. These different kinds of levels give you some much needed variety in game play (Id games could learn something from AASO:AG for Doom 4). There are also some new enemies that appear later in the game: investigators, tribunals, and journalists, each of which you must avoid in order to finish the game.

Some people have complained that this game is kind of unchallenging because you're beating up people who are in handcuffs, and they can't fight back, but I found it really interesting and fun, and I thought the detail in the 3D environments (dripping faucets, clanking bars in the cells, blood-covered inmates forced to mock-fellate each other, constant screaming, men beating their heads against bars, laughing soldiers) really gave this game an ambience that compared to some of the classics, like Resident Evil or Silent Hill.

Best RPG

Will Oldham's Adventure
Albin I/O Studios (PS2, PC, Mac)

Okay, this is a weird RPG. It takes some getting used to. If you are into platformers where you get to blow up space stations this is not for you. But there is something really special and unique about this game. Basically you are the musician Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and someone has stolen your beard, which makes you very, very sad. You have to go on tour and play concerts and talk to different NPCs about getting different parts of your beard back. The concert cut scenes are well-rendered, and the game graphics are top-notch (they use the Unreal engine). The NPCs are really pretty good, and include P.J. Harvey (be REALLY careful when she invites you up to her apartment), and (spoiler alert) Johnny Cash, who has some good advice on finding your beard, and the Renderers. I also liked that, once you go through the game once, you can play it again as a cinematographer, a big ol' bear, or a racing horse, although to be honest game play doesn't differ that much when you play as different characters.

Screenshot: Will Oldham's Adventure, right
as Will is about to meet up with P.J.

There's going to be a MMORPG version soon, which I can't wait for, because the idea of thousands of Will Oldhams sharing a world together online is pretty amazing. I'm also looking forward to two other games from Albin I/O that are supposed to come out later this year: The Wrens: Escape from New Jersey, where you play a hard-working band trying to balance your careers with a demanding travel schedule, and The Longest Winter with the Long Winters, where you play an indie rock group trying to survive in an infinite nuclear wasteland.

Best Gameplay

Cat Ball Shaver
Otaku Shimbun Kanawasi Studios (XBox, PS2)

Okay, you know Otaku Shimbun Kanawasi Studios in Toronto from Maikatastugenatsu's Purple Rainy-Day Laugh Revenge Snake Scenario and the Windows CE port of BLAZEMONGER, which were on my best-of lists from 2002 and 2003, respectively, but they have totally outdone themselves with Cat Ball Shaver.

Screenshot: Cat Ball Shaver,
Mirrorville Sequence

This is one of those games that you have to see, where it's all about gameplay. Basically, you're a razor, and you have to run through a number of increasingly weird 3D levels, chasing cats, and shaving their balls. The cats get increasingly hard to find, and there are an amazing number of them. There are tabbies, tortoise-shells, Siamese, and cougars. As you complete levels the razor gets more powerful and you have to be careful not to hurt the cats or neuter them. When you succeed in shaving a cat's balls, it spits up a diamond that you can collect. But when a cat escapes, it turns into a bandage, and if you trip over the bandage, it wraps around you, and this keeps happening until you become a mummy, which scares the cats even more, which makes them more difficult to find. Also, you're allergic to the sun, which means that during the day you have to open up an umbrella, and different cats react in different ways to the umbrella. Some run away, and some turn into birch trees. Like I said, this one is hard to explain! But you will definitely appreciate the creativity and originality of Cat Ball Shaver.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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